Exclusive Interview: Sleeping Giants Author Sylvain Neuvel

In his debut novel Sleeping Giants (hardcover, digital), writer Sylvain Neuvel uses interview transcripts and journal entries to tell the story of how a young girl from South Dakota found an enormous metal hand, and then grew up to be a scientist searching for the rest of the giant robot. Though in talking to him about the book, it’s clear that this story may be larger than one young girl and one big robot.

Sylvain Neuvel Sleeping Giants authorphoto credit: James Andrew Rosen

 

In a basic sense, what is Sleeping Giants about?

Well, to me, this is a book about human nature, how inescapable it is. But that’s just me. It’s also about the cost of progress, and those who have to decide what that progress is worth. It could just be a really fun treasure hunt with giant metal body parts. Your call.

You tell the story through journal entries and interview transcripts, as opposed to a straight narrative. Why did you decide this was the best way to tell this story?

I wanted the reader to get to know the characters the way we get to know people in real life, to figure things out on their own. It’s something I, as a reader, really enjoy. Moreover, the interviewer in Sleeping Giants isn’t merely a narrative tool, he is one of the most important characters.

Now, as we all know, people sometimes remember things wrong. Is there any of that in your book, where someone being interviewed remembers something wrong or intentionally lies or omits some information?

I’m not sure there are parts of the book where they do not. Every time the interviewer opens his mouth, he is hiding more than he is saying. Every single one of the characters is human, and proud, and ashamed, and whatever else makes people forget the truth or twist it to suit their needs.

The book is centered on a giant and ancient humanoid robot. In deciding how the robot would look, did you base it on anything specific, like the robot from The Iron Giant or Mechagodzilla or the Metal Gear from the Metal Gear Solid games?

In hindsight, it does share some attributes with the Maschinenmensch in Metropolis, but that wasn’t a conscious decision. I mostly thought that anyone with the technology to build these giant machines would have to be crazy not to try and make it look good. It shouldn’t be a hunk of metal with bolts and wires sticking out like something McGyvered inside someone’s garage. It should be a work of art.

Sleeping Giants is also centered around Rose Franklin, who finds the robot’s hand when she’s a kid and grows up to be a physicist who studies it. First, in figuring out how Rose would behave, did you talk to any real physicists or did you just base her on Leslie Winkle from The Big Bang Theory?

Rose is the first character I had in mind when I started this book. I had a pretty clear vision of who she was, and I’m reasonably familiar with the world she lives in. So Rose was always Rose, but she didn’t have a last name. I was about halfway through the book when I gave those to everyone. Rose got hers from Rosalind Franklin, a chemist who did pioneering work in the discovery of DNA during the fifties. Look her up.

Given the somewhat toxic environment around fictional women lately, especially in video games and comic books, I’m curious why you made Rose a woman as opposed to a man?

I didn’t make Rose a woman. Rose was…Rose. I wish I had some deep explanation as to why the two main characters in the book are women, but they really just are. I was raised with Ellen Ripley, and Sarah Connor, Nikita, Trinity, smart characters that could also kick ass. I like smart.

Sleeping Giants has been compared to both Andy Weir’s The Martian and Max Brooks’ World War Z. Do you think these comparisons are fair, and what books do you think it should be compared to?

These books share an unusual epistolary format, so the comparison is probably inevitable. If I were to choose something to compare it to, I would mix movies and books. Contact meets X-Files meets Hunt For Red October, that sort of thing.

There’s also a note on your website, neuvel.net, that says, “Like Star Wars? Check out my book!” How do you think Sleeping Giants is like Star Wars?

Star Wars is set in this vast and amazing universe, but its focus is much smaller. It’s really a story about one family with serious issues. Sleeping Giants also happens on a very large scale, it deals with alien life, but it’s really a human story. It’s about a handful of people whose lives are turned upside down by this amazing discovery.

Your website also has a whole section on “linguistics,” which you actually earned a PH.D. in from the University Of Chicago. Given that, how does linguistic come to play in Sleeping Giants, and why not write a fantasy or sci-fi novel with a bunch of invented languages like J.R.R. Tolkien did with The Lord Of The Rings?

How much time did you spend on my website anyway?

I am a professional.

There is a linguist in the book. To be honest, having a linguistics background, I made a conscious effort not to go all Qapla’h in this book, but it’s a series, so who knows? Maybe Vincent will get to use more of his language skills at some point.

Speaking of Sleeping Giants being the first in a series. When, in the process of writing it, did you realize it should be the first part of a trilogy, and what led you to this conclusion? And why a trilogy as opposed to a five-book series or just an ongoing series?

I have said no such thing. No, really, I haven’t. It’s at least three books, then we’ll see. I call it a however-many-ology.

But I knew it was a series when I started the first book. There’s just too much to see and do. Right now, I can’t imagine ever getting tired of this universe.

How much of the other books do you have figured out, and how far along are you in writing them?

One is in the hands of my editor [Waking Gods, due out April 4, 2017], so I really hope I have that one figured out. Book three is in the early stages. I know the plot, but the format of the Themis Files makes the point of view, the angle, the trickiest part to figure out.

My understanding is that the movie rights for Sleeping Giants have already been bought. What can you tell us about it?

The movie rights were bought by Sony before the book was even sold. They hired David Koepp to write the script. If you don’t know him, he does small things like Jurassic Park, Spider-Man, Mission: Impossible, etc. That’s pretty much all I know right now.

Did they ever offer you the chance to write the screenplay? And would you have even wanted to?

No, they didn’t ask me. I wrote a screenplay for a TV show when I was much younger, so I might have taken a stab at it if someone’s life depended on it, but I would probably have ended up secretly hiring David Koepp to do it for me.

As you probably know, you won’t have any say in who plays Rose or the other characters in the movie. But if you did, who would you like to star in the movie?

This is one road I will not travel on, but if you put a gun to my head and ask for one name, I will say Rose is Carrie Coon [from the movie Gone Girl].

Your bio mentions that you’re a big toy guy, so I’ll ask you this as well: What toy company would you like to make a Sleeping Giants toy?

That is, by far, the best question anyone has ever asked.

If we’re talking robot, dollar for dollar, I think NECA is right up there. Their Pacific Rim line is amazing, and for the price, their ED-209 [from RoboCop] is hard to beat. For Rose, Kara, and Vincent, it’s pretty hard to beat Hot Toys when it comes to human likenesses. For mass market figures, I like what McFarlane has done with The Walking Dead. I’d like to get whoever did the Star Trek Nemesis Captain Picard sculpt at Art Asylum back in the day. That figure was great.

Sylvain Neuvel Sleeping Giants cover

Finally, I usually end my author interviews by asking them which of their other books people should read next. But since Sleeping Giants is your first novel, what book by someone else would you suggest someone read if they really like your book, and why?

I think everyone should read the Red Rising trilogy [by Pierce Brown] if they haven’t already. I’m reading Morning Star right now and I’m loving every minute of it. That’s it. That’s my reason. Read it because it’s great.

 

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